The Myth of Gendered Writing in Academic History

This week I had intended to write about anonymous or blind marking. It is a topic I feel quite passionate about and, after several weeks of marking essays, I had a number of points I wished to make. Yet, I was concerned that I would be merely preaching to the converted and so decided to undertake a short survey of recent blogs and other writings on the subject. I was so incensed by what I found that Anonymous Marking will have to wait. Instead I must address the issue of Gendered Writing.

Let me begin with a suitably controversial statement:

There is no such thing as male writing or female writing, only good writing and poor writing.

I do not mean, of course, that what qualifies as good writing is wholly uniform or without variation. Nor would I ever argue that, within certain debates, there cannot be male perspectives or female perspectives. What I object to is the idea that men and women have natural writing styles that must be recognised as equally valid approaches to the art of composition and accommodated for within the realm of academia. This, as they say, is complete and utter nonsense.

I, Melodee Helene Beals, have a writing style. It has been developed over the course of many years of reading and writing, and is likely to have several distinguishing features. Some of these distinguishing features may in fact be errors of composition; indeed I am confident that some of them of are. These should be corrected, not accommodated.

But why, you may ask, am I so incensed by the idea of gendered writing styles?

My anger began, as I stated above, while undertaking due diligence for this week's blogpost. After reading several interesting commentaries on the practice of anonymous marking, I came upon this campaign by the National Union of Students. It makes several claims about the need for and benefits of anonymous marking, many of which I found counter-intuitive if not completely counter-factual to my own experience, both as a lecturer and a student. Yet, as an open-minded individual, I gave the NUS the benefit of the doubt and endeavoured to read their entire policy document, found here. Again, I was confronted by a number of claims regarding under-marking because of the race, faith or gender of the student. Concerned that such discrimination was still in fact occurring within the UK university system, I scrolled down to the bibliography in order study the document's citations. There were none. Undeterred, I returned the NUS campaign page, which did have a selection of further reading listed.

Further Reading Suggested by the NUS on Discrimination in Assessment Practice

You will notice, no doubt, that with the exception of Steinberg's piece (which I could not locate and therefore cannot comment upon) they all deal with gender bias in marking and assessment, rather than race or religion. Still, hoping to find the latest and therefore most relevant study of this phenomenon, I began with 'An analysis of undergraduate writing styles in the context of gender and achievement.'

As I was about to begin it, however, I saw that Francis had in fact written another piece two years later on gendered writing in undergraduate history. This, I thought, would be ideal. This, it turned out, prevented me from obtaining a good night's sleep.

Let me begin by highlighting the fact that although ostensibly a study from 2000s, the data used by Francis et al was actually obtained between 1997 and 1999, making its relevancy to contemporary trends questionable to say the the least. Nonetheless, I continued.

What I found was, from my perspective, a very strange methodology indeed. The educational researchers had examined a relatively small number of history essays, eighty-seven, from four London-based universities. They compared the mark given to a list of sentence categories that they had assigned to the essay:

The categories we chose were ‘bold’, ‘tentative’ and ‘evaluative’. Following the pilot phase of the study, ‘bold’ was divided into bold 1 (extreme boldness or overstatement) and bold 2 (straightforward argument or assertion) and ‘tentative’ into tentative 1 (extreme caution) and tentative 2 (qualification) (p. 385).

My difficulty with this methodology is twofold. First, the sample size, particularly the geographical narrowness of the sample size, is completely inappropriate for wider extrapolation, as the cohorts of these universities are likely to be very different from those of the wider undergraduate community. London, after all, is a metropolitan centre, which will attract and retain a different subset of undergraduates; the social dimension of the undergraduate experience, as opposed to that of postgraduates, cannot be underestimated.

My second, and more important, qualm is that the definition of bold or tentative was based upon discipline-neutral vocabulary rather than historiographical content. Without consulting the historians who actually marked the work, these definitions are essentially meaningless.

I, for example, often identify bold or tentative historical statements by the source; whether or not it has come directly from my own lectures or the core textbook reading, rather than from wider research and synthesis. Indeed, these researchers did not seem to fully understand the nature of historical writing, which they described as 'likely to put a particular emphasis on shaping an aesthetically pleasing product out of a formless body of raw data' and to 'approach problems in an open-ended way, allowing the hypotheses to emerge from the data.' They contrasted this with sociological writing, which they attest 'begins with a hypothesis and is followed by the data.' (p. 353) I found this a little insulting, to say the least.

But, you may ask, what is the point to the long and rambling tirade? Where is the gendered element?

At the end of this rather tentative study, it was determined that as women were under-represented in the UK professoriate, female students were unable to imagine an appropriate female authoritative voice to emulate in their own writing. They therefore became dependent upon qualifiers and tentative vocabulary in order 'hedge their bets' and avoid conflict or offence.

Although I can certainly appreciate the value of gender-specific role models to some individuals, I have never aspired to write 'like an authoritative woman'. I want to write well. I want my writing to be clear, persuasive, and evidence-based. These are not gendered goals.

But wait, it gets worse:

Harding (1990, 1991) maintains that academic writing is a masculine mode of discourse. Argument, rationality and ‘objectivity’ tend to be stressed at the expense of emotion and subjectivity. The conventions place constraints on the use of personal experience and the identification of authorship.

Despite the passion of this piece, I do not consider my academic writing to lack argument or to be irrational or subjective. If it were I would not be able to achieve my stated goals.

The paper also notes that

women’s style of argument tends to be affliative and men’s more objectifying or competitive. Rubin and Greene (1992) found that women were twice as likely to acknowledge other viewpoints in their writing as men and that their writing was, as a result, less confrontational and more affliative.

My objection to this is simple. Effective historical writing requires an objective, rational argument if it is to offer any value to other academic readers or to society as a whole. Subjective, irrational discourse would serve no purpose. To imply that this is how women naturally compose text is insulting.

I will concede that the modern secondary education system may socialise women (and, I would argue, many men) to write in a tentative and non-argumentative way. However, this is not an indication of gendered writing styles that ought to be accommodated in the name of fairness and gender equality, but rather poor writing practices that ought to be stamped out, as evidenced by 2500 years of rhetorical evolution.

There is no male writing or female writing. There is only good writing and poor writing. If women are not writing to the standard we have come to expect of male students, then additional support should be provided to repair any damage that accommodating gender styles at secondary level has done. I cannot countenance living in a world of subjective, irrational discourse just because it seems a simpler solution than teaching students to write well.

Moreover, those who currently hold power in our society, those who have been taught to present their arguments in a persuasive, clear and authoritative fashion, will continue to do so while women, the working-classes and ethnic minorities will be merely accommodated and, as a result, fail to achieve the positions in society they might otherwise obtain.

My evidence of this is Francis's own 2001 article, which concluded that 'in the case of “second-class” awarded essays, a majority of academics were unable to correctly identify the author[']s gender.'

Writing well is not gendered.


6 thoughts on “The Myth of Gendered Writing in Academic History

  1. Alison

    Very interesting… and perfectly in agreement up to this point: ‘If women are not writing to the standard we have come to expect of male students, then additional support should be provided to repair any damage that accommodating gender styles at secondary level has done.’

    Could it be there is a style of writing that many academics VALUE – and that might be more forthright, more chancing your arm, less tentative and acommodating etc? And that males are socialised to be the former and females the latter? And that is not the same as it being of a better standard…

    I don’t plan on losing any sleep over it tonight though!

    • Good evening Alison. First, welcome to the blog! Hope you enjoyed reading it so far.

      In terms of my use of the phrase ‘better standard’, I would argue that the reason that academics value forthright, even forceful, rhetoric is that it best serves the main aims of writing–the communication of thoughts and the delivery of arguments. I have, for a long time, attempted to concede the point that there is a time and a place for more tentative, accommodating rhetoric, but have yet to be fundamentally convinced of its utility. Its main aim purpose seems to be occlusion, whether of the ignorance or malevolence–neither of which endear it to me. I am happy to be proven wrong, of course. In fairness, I suppose a less confrontational style, as some might see it, would be better appreciated in a popular or informal context, but I always appreciate clarity and candour, even outside this ivory tower of mine!

  2. Ian

    Hi Melodee,

    Nice blog- I wish I could be so dedicated. Interesting post too. I’ve added a few comments if you’re interested:

    Whilst i share your scepticism about “natural” or innate writing styles, I find it hard to accept what seem to be the implications of your argument, viz., that terms like “objective” and “rational argument” are value neutral. For me they are heavily laden with rhetorical and ideological baggage of the discipline, that exclude other forms and practices of writing about history. One might – and many have – that what constitutes “good” historical writing is rooted in a particular Western, bourgeois, and male conception of history and its modes of writing. I’m sure you are familiar with such critiques. For me what all these arguments point up is the equation of power and knowledge; a well-trodden theme admittedly, but history as a discipline has always been closely identified with the nation-state, even in its more radical variants, and remains so. A historical education is about cultivating a particular identity- the liberal, democratic citizen (well at least that’s my reading of the benchmark statement). Being part of the academic discipline means agreeing to certain standards of rationality, which are not neutral (though this doesn’t necessarily discredit them) and cultivating a self that is “judicious”, “empirical”, “impartial”, etc etc. I suppose what i’m saying is that academic history is only one way of representing the past, and perhaps not always the best way. It tends to marginalise other ways of evoking the past, especially those which rely on the subjective or the personal dimension, which I don’t think can be equated with the irrational. To me, “good” writing is not all that it seems, and can obscure important historical experiences that are irreducible to the linear narratives of historiography, though i’m not rejecting it by any means.

    • Good morning, Ian, and thank you for the kind words about my blog. I am always interested in discussing these points further, so thank you very much for commenting. I must, however, disagree with you on two points, philosophical and practical. First, though, let me establish that your comments have moved this conversation from one discussing male and female writing style to one contemplating modern (Enlightenment) and post-modern interpretations of truth and knowledge. I find this a very interesting debate and, with full disclosure, fall decidedly within the modern or Enlightenment camp.

      In terms of your queries, I must first correct an assumption you seem to have drawn from my writing. I do not in any way argue that there is only one correct form of historiographical methodology, based on linear narrative. On the contrary, this form of historical discourse is a very clumsy tool, which often misses more historical truth than it uncovers. What I demand is merely a rigorous and logical dissemination of historical knowledge once it is uncovered. Philosophically, I do not agree that some histories are subjective, personal or,as you seem to imply, revelatory in nature. As a researcher of perception, I understand clearly that individuals often appear to act in an irrational or wholly subjective manner, but I would argue that they would never characterise themselves as doing so. Instead, they are behaving in a completely logical and rational manner based on their perceptions, which are often based upon inaccurate information and assumptions (purposefully or mistakenly). When I write, therefore, I must explain in a clear, evidence-based manner, how these individuals subjectively view the world and what are the observable, empirical results of those perceptions. My writing style must be clear and precise if I am to communicate my findings of subjective narratives to individuals who have not had similar revelatory experiences. Otherwise, the reader and the subject can never be mutually understood. If you do not believe they can be mutually understood, as some post-modernists do, then there is very little point in publishing your research.

      On a practical level, I concede that this form of writing may be ‘Western, bourgeois and male’, in so much as it derives its nature, in part, from such persons in the eighteenth century. However, I would also argue that this form of rhetoric has a much longer and wider history (across geographic and class boundaries). Although it has certainly been used to occlude truth and repress populations over the centuries, the reason it could do so was its ability to persuade and convey information between individuals with great efficiency; it has evolved and refined to be the most effective means of communication (for good or for ill) that we have yet devised. What I am arguing in this piece is that, while it may be nice to engage in other forms of discourse, being denied these finely honed tools of rhetorical discourse will fundamentally impair an individual from attaining positions of economic or political power. Even individuals who are appealing to the subjective and personal part of their listeners continue to wield the weapons of impartial rationality in their argument construction. The only way for a person to effectively combat this manipulation and put forth their own practical and political views is to fundamentally understand these tools and how to use them.

  3. Ian

    I agree with much of what you say here, though I’m a bit sceptical of the idea that academic discourse is the most effective means of communication we have. I’d argue that there are multiple forms of discursive production, or in our case, making the past intelligible, within the entire ambit of human experience. Of course, it possesses undoubted advantages, but it has acquired a certain dominance and force due to a particular set of historical and cultural circumstances. There is an interesting debate to be had here which, as you point out, hinges on questions of interpretation and truth. (As it stretches far beyond the focus of your initial post, i’ll limit myself to a brief point). For me the duality of modern-postmodern seems somewhat a polemical construct and I tend to agree with those who seek to move historians beyond the limits of both positions- that seemingly incommensurable positions do not foreclose discussion, and that the goal of theoretical closure is unnecessary. Is not possible to use particular theoretical and epistemic standpoints in a strategic fashion?

    Your point about the need to be able to deploy such tools in order to engage with economic and political power is taken, although I’d add that in order for any progressive political programme to gain traction it would also need to contest the languages of the public sphere at the same time as developing its own modes of expression. Not that I assume you are necessarily on board with such a programme (why should you be?) even if one could be clearly defined in the ways that perhaps socialism or feminism had been for earlier generations. My point, another tangential one, is in what ways does history – academic history that is – allow us to think about politics and does it remain a discourse open to democratic and emancipatory projects. I think it does but it is much more difficult to identify where that link is to be found (esp. when compared with earlier generations).

    I think I’ll leave it here, as I’m conscious that I’m leaping across different concerns with my inchoate thoughts and don’t want to derail the initial impetus of your post.


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